For most, a car is just a car. For some, a car is an experience. If you are one of those drivers, then this list is for you. The vehicles in this list are all used cars that have a certain amount of soul the average commuter car lacks. An X factor that puts a smile on the face of everyone who drives them.
It isn’t necessarily that they have enormous amounts of power, lots of advanced technology, or even prestigious badges or brands. And they certainly aren’t expensive, all coming under $15,000, with some available for well under half that. What makes these cars special is that every trip, no matter how mundane, is made a little bit more fun thanks to the vehicle being built to have fun.
Affectionately known as boats or yachts by enthusiasts, these large sedans can strike an imposing figure, but at the same time blend into a crowd. Their size is practical, making them great to bring along friends for the ride or stuff to the gills with whatever cargo needs moving.
But a side effect of their size is that they come with optional large displacement V8 engines from the factory. Even the modern V6s that power the slower base model variants of these cars have more than enough power to get them out of their own way, but the V8s offer power in a way that is wonderfully American and shocking to the uninitiated. When equipped with V6 engines, these cars are quite decent for daily driving and purr along the road. With V8s, they roar.
The 2011 and up Chrysler 300 is the most imposing of the trio of full-sized cars on this list, with striking styling that feels regal against a country background and aggressive when moving through a city. Available with all-wheel drive, the V6 variant of the 300 is versatile and incredibly plush. But find a used example with the available HEMI V8, and this luxurious sedan gains teeth. The most powerful option is the 6.4L HEMI 392 that was offered from 2012 to 2014.
Chevrolet never sold the 2011 to 2017 Caprice PPV to civilians. Based on the Holden four-door muscle cars of General Motors Australia, they were offered solely to police and government agencies in the hopes of chasing down bad guys. Now, however, they are coming on the civilian market second hand. These are certainly not luxury cars, especially depending on how well the police equipment was removed before sale. That said, if you find an LS V8 powered Caprice PPV, you have a tough and eyewateringly-fast interceptor that civilian drivers were never meant to get their hands on.
Unlike the 300 and the Caprice, the Chevy Impala SS is front-wheel drive. This makes the Impala easier to drive while providing a different overall experience when compared to rear-wheel drive cars. While both the skill floor and skill ceiling for driving an Impala SS is lower than the other full-sized cars on this list, its cylinder count is not. The 2006 to 2009 sedan is one of only four cars to ever get the LS4 V8 engine.
The compact cars on this list offer a wide variety of different capabilities, feels, and styles. Some are out-and-out speed machines simply dressed in a veneer of normalcy, while others are simply normal cars so well built that they feel like a sports car, especially thanks to the right optional extras. All of these cars have expansive lineups that include more normal variants all the way up to turbocharged speed machines that are as fun as a six-figure supercar to drive – which isn’t bad for something with a hatchback.
The Hyundai Veloster is easily one of, if not the most practical cars on this list. With an innovative three-door setup and a cargo area with a hatchback rear, it can swallow up cargo like a parcel van but then move much faster. Of all the 2011 to 2018 Veloster trim levels, the Veloster Turbo is the most entertaining, for self-explanatory reasons.
The 2007 to 2014 Subaru Impreza WRX is a turbocharged four-wheel drive compact offered first as a hatchback, with a sedan option being added later in the generation. While on the upper end of the $15,000 limit for this list, this Subaru is worth it. Equipped with a famous Subaru boxer engine and the highly effective symmetrical all-wheel drive, it is a car that can put its turbocharged power to the ground in any weather condition. It also does this without being excessively heavy and is thus a great all-around performance car.
The Honda Civic has always been a mainstay for the car enthusiast community, largely because Civics have always been inexpensive, reliable, and lightweight. They are a great example of an economy car so well thought out and put together that without much effort they can become impressive performance machines. This is especially true of the ninth generation of Civic, encompassing the short span of model years from 2012 to 2015. The Si variant of this Civic generation utilized the highly reliable and surprisingly torquey K24 engine, which, combined with the Civic’s relatively low 2,800 lbs curb weight, makes it a hoot to drive.
Sports and Muscle
No matter what the job is, the best tool for the job is always the one made for it. When it comes to putting smiles on faces, sports cars and muscle cars are the best cars there are. While they are both explicitly designed to deliver a good time, sports cars and muscle cars do so in completely opposite ways.
Sports cars are precision instruments that are meant to attack corners at the direction of a skilled driver. They aren’t necessarily that fast (though the expensive ones certainly are), but they have lightweight agility that allows them to outmaneuver far more powerful cars.
If sports cars are thoroughbreds, muscle cars are bucking broncos. Unruly and overly powerful by design, enthusiasts prefer these vehicles with V8 engines as God and George Washington intended. While modern muscle cars are less terrifying to drive than their predecessors by a country mile, they maintain the sound and fury that has defined them since day one.
The Mustang is a household name, and for good reason. It has always stood for the democratization of speed and fun, not to mention a healthy dose of style. The 2005 to 2014 Mustang GT was the lightest of the Big Three’s muscle cars when it was in production, and thus the most nimble, but it still has a roaring V8 engine under the hood.
The ultimate sports car, at least as far as affordability and popularity goes, is the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Built purely for fun, they deliver smiles to the average driver better than practically any other car ever made, especially for the price. The NC generation, produced from 2005 to 2015, is the best model for someone looking to both save money and acquire a reliable and purpose-built sports car.
Used Cars are Fun!
All the cars listed here are excellent for putting a smile on your face during the daily commute, and even more so if you visit an autocross or trackday event. From large land yachts with enormous engines to practical small turbocharged hatchbacks to joyfully light sports cars to brutally powerful muscle cars, there is something for everyone when it comes to used enthusiast cars. Even better, all of these cars are available at reasonable prices and are new enough that reliability and upkeep is a non-issue. Be careful, though – if you buy one of these machines, you might not be able to let it go because of all the great memories you will make with it.